At a career height, Matthew Polenzani is still looking for new paths to explore

Tue Oct 16, 2018 at 1:31 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Matthew Polenzani stars in Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Faymous

“Are you kidding me?”

Matthew Polenzani’s answer is instantaneous and heartfelt. Not that the American tenor hasn’t heard the question before. When you’re at the top of the international opera heap, earning rapturous reviews for your Mozart at the Met, London and Paris; your Verdi in Zurich and Munich, and roles at Lyric Opera of Chicago ranging from Mozart to Bizet, Verdi, and Massenet, inquiring minds want to know. As a youngster, did he dream of becoming a big-time, big-deal opera star?

What astonishes Polenzani, who was raised in Wilmette and celebrated his 50thbirthday earlier this year, isn’t the question. It’s the implication that he would have envisioned such big things for himself.

“I never dreamed of being a singer, ever” he said during an interview earlier this month backstage at the Lyric Opera House. Relaxed and in high spirits, wearing jeans, a red sport shirt and boots, Polenzani was between rehearsals for Mozart’s Idomeneo, which opens at Lyric Thursday night (a bit belatedly due to last week’s musicians strike).

He sings the title role in this production originally staged for the Metropolitan Opera in 1982 by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.  Polenzani portrays the king of Crete torn between his vow of obedience to Neptune, the god of the sea, and his love for his son, Idamante, whose life Neptune demands as payment for saving the king from drowning at sea.

Last year the New York Times praised Polenzani’s work at the Met’s revival of the Ponnelle production, calling his Idomeneo a “poignant, gripping performance [sung] with melting warmth one moment, virile heft the next.”

Polenzani studied piano as a youngster, sang in school musicals, and soloed with a pick-up rock band as a high schooler at New Trier in Wilmette. He headed to Eastern Illinois University aiming for a career as a choral director/music teacher.

But a master class at Eastern with distinguished bass-baritone Alan Held changed his trajectory. Heeding Held’s advice, he earned a master’s degree in vocal studies at Yale University. After graduating from Yale in 1994, Polenzani made the cut for Lyric Opera’s young artist training program, now known as the Ryan Opera Center. The artistic administrator for the Metropolitan Opera caught one of his Lyric performances, and by 1997 Polenzani had signed a Met contract and moved to New York, which has been his home base ever since.

That kind of early success can go to a young tenor’s head. But Polenzani never succumbed to the dream of quick stardom that prompts so many gifted young singers to take on too much too fast and, as a result, damage their voices, sometime beyond repair.

“I have been lucky, or blessed, or smart—depending on how you want to look at it,” he said, “about the repertoire that I’ve chosen. I’ve just slowly added things along and helped my voice grow in a very natural way.”

Lyric audiences have been lucky to see Polenzani in several of the roles he added so judicially to his repertoire. Since 2006 his Lyric appearances have included Romeo in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata, and the title roles in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, and Massenet’s Werther. He has done three Mozart operas in Chicago, singing Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio, the title role in La Clemenza di Tito, and Tamino in The Magic Flute. Last season he headlined in Verdi’s Rigolettoand Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

“He’s one of the finest singers around,” said Andrew Davis, Lyric’s music director, who will conduct Idomeneo. Davis has conducted several Lyric productions with Polenzani: Traviata, Werther, Pearl Fishers, Seraglio, and La Clemenza.

“There’s the fact that he was so successful in Rigoletto last season,” said Davis. “He can tackle roles of such a hugely wide range and style. He has a fantastic sense of style. That was exquisite singing in Pearl Fishers. It combined magnificent, climactic, full-throated singing with the ability to produce the most ravishing pianissimo, but one that carries. You could feel the whole audience holding its breath.”

Matthew Polenzani (with Nadine Sierra) in “Idomeneo” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Mozart has been central to Polenzani’s repertoire.

“He’s the definitive Don Ottavio in my book,” said Davis, “and it’s the hardest character to bring across in [Mozart’s] Don Giovanni.He sings it exquisitely; the coloratura is brilliant. But he also manages to be both sympathetic and strong. That’s something a lot of people don’t manage to do with Don Ottavio.

“Matthew will do the same with Idomeneo. Any character who is torn, emotionally complex, he has a way of combining those qualities.”

Idomeneo is Polenzani’s favorite Mozart opera, and he unashamedly loves its expressive arias and ensembles. That devotion might surprise some opera lovers. Written when Mozart was in his mid-twenties, Idomeneo is an opera seria, a genre with little of the blood-and-thunder drama so typical of 19thcentury opera. Staging opera seriacan be tricky since there’s relatively little action. As a result, Idomeneois a rarity in today’s opera houses. Lyric has produced it only twice before, in 1977 and 1997.

“I adore the music,” said Polenzani. “Not just the music for Idomeneo. But the aria at the top of Act II for Ilia [Idamante’s beloved].

“This is such great music. I have to force myself to stay in character and not just sit and listen to the glory of the score. And the chorus, “O voto tremendo.” I mean, come on. It’s one of the great choruses in all of opera, not just Mozart.”

Just as compelling for Polenzani is the story line. Polenzani and his wife have three young sons, and Idomeneo’s dilemma, torn between his vow to Neptune and love for his son, touches him deeply.

“What draws me to this character is the depth of his problem. If you’re a dad…” Polenzani’s voice trails off. “Other people I’ve talked to relate to Idomeneo as a king, the power side of it. For me, this role always comes down to, it’s his son and he has to kill him because he make a deal to save his own life and the lives of his crew. I want very much to make sure that the public understands that Idomeneo is broken from the very second he understands that [the person he has to sacrifice] is his son. I want audiences to understand the depth of his problem. Not just on a clinical, brain level, but in a heartfelt, broken-hearted level.”

That depth came through in an early rehearsal of Idomeneo in the vast second-floor rehearsal room of the Lyric Opera House. David Kneuss, who worked with Ponnelle on the original 1982 production at the Met, is supervising Lyric’s revival. He directed Polenzani in the Met’s revival last year as well, and they had an easy camaraderie as they ran through the Act III quartet for Idomeneo, Ilia (Janai Brugger), Idamante (Angela Brower) and Idamante’s jealous fiancée, Elettra (Erin Wall). Neptune had threatened to destroy Crete if Idomeneo doesn’t make good on his vow. Defying his father, Idamante resolves to confront Neptune on his own.

“This is a big change,” said Kneuss, stopping the confrontation between the two. “Now you’re calling him ‘Signor [my lord],” he said to Brower. “Before that, it had always been ‘my father.’ Matthew, you’re angry, but also a little proud that your son is stepping up, saying, ‘I’m ready to go. I’m going to fight the monster.’ “

Polenzani will step up to challenges of his own in the coming months. He will sing his first opera in Russian, taking the role of Vaudemont in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta at the Met in January and February. In June he makes his role debut as Don Jose in Bizet’s Carmen at the San Francisco Opera.

“I’ve always subscribed to the belief,” said Polenzani, “that singing all the same sort of repertoire all the time doesn’t lend itself to causing the voice to be elastic and pliant. Plus, it keeps the brain interested. You can get stuck. And I never want to get stuck.”

Mozart’s Idomeneo runs through November 2.

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